'He always said he didn't do it': Descendants of Groveland Four hope pardon is coming

“He always said he didn’t to it … always,” said Eddie Irvin Jr., the nephew of Walter Irvin. Irvin said he remembers visiting his uncle in prison when he was 2 years old.

Irvin said his uncle’s brother and sister are still alive.

“I would like to see this pardon take place while they’re still living,” Irvin said. “Every year we get closer and closer.”

In 1949, a white 17-year-old Lake County girl said she was raped and that her husband was assaulted, resulting in the quick arrests of four black men. 

Earnest Thomas was killed by an angry mob during a manhunt. Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin were shot by the controversial Sheriff Willis McCall after he said they tried to escape. Irvin survived, and he and Charles Greenlee spent much of their lives in prison after being convicted by an all-white jury. 

Greenlee and Irvin were eventually paroled after serving lengthy prison sentences.

The case is getting renewed focus after Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis and newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried spoke publicly about the need to posthumously pardon the men. 

"Seventy years is a long time," DeSantis said. "And that's the amount of time four young men have been wrongly written into Florida history for crimes they did not commit and punishments they did not deserve."

Recently, the Lake County Commission and all four Lake County constitutional officers wrote letters asking for the Groveland Four to be cleared.

Outgoing Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other Republicans on the state clemency board have refused to take up the pardon request, even though the Florida Legislature last year formally apologized and asked for a pardon.

The Groveland Four's story was recounted in Gilbert King's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Devil in the Grove."

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